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Five Girls, One Page

Posted: January 21, 2008 5:35 p.m.
Updated: March 23, 2008 2:02 a.m.

(From front to back) Saugus' Nicole Hicks, Breann Wilson, Gabrielle Conn, Danielle Mofsowitz and Lauren Labat make up one of the valley's deepest starting lineups.

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Sometimes it feels like winning should come with a warning label.

The increase in smiling, the boost in self confidence and all of that extra recognition from peers - there's always going to be some side effects to deal with - including, sometimes, an unforeseen blast of brutal honesty.
That's been the case with the Saugus girls basketball team.
Centurions head coach Eric Olsson spoke last year of the long work hours, of a desire to spend more time with his family and of a long-held dream of coaching hoops at the college level when he stepped down from the Cents at the end of the season. He claimed all his cards were out on the table.
But he neglected one.
One a 4-0 Foothill League start -now that he's come back - has brought out of him.
"There was a lot of jealousy and backfighting on last year's team," Olsson says. "It wore on me. I didn't want to be around it anymore. It was one of the reasons I20decided I20wanted to leave."
He stepped down even with a treasure-chest worth of returning talent. Each of Saugus' five starters this season are third-year varsity players - an incredible advantage in a league where Hart and Valencia each have one returning starter and Canyon has two sophomores in its backcourt.
But in the five returning starters existed zero chemistry.
"There was a lot of tension during practices," says Saugus senior forward Breann Wilson, a second-year starter. "Everyone took everything personally. I think it was especially from the seniors. It wasn't a fun team to be a part of."
Wilson says last year's group was especially un-accommodating to then-junior newcomer guard Lauren Labat. Stuck on the junior varsity team as a sophomore a season earlier because of a transfer from Hart and her position in the lineup delayed by a pre-league knee injury, she was not greeted with open arms into the starting five.
"People were more worried about themselves," Wilson says. "Nobody felt like they wanted to give away their playing time to make room."
It was a recipe for disaster.
And it's a problem the Centurions may not have been willing to admit as freely had they not been as successful as they've been this year at fixing it.
Olsson, two weeks after resigning, returned to the job.
Now he's breathing a sigh of relief. He says his Centurions squad, while not the most talented he's had at Saugus, may be the best and for an ironic reason.
Meet last year's opposites.
Chemistry, a liability last season, is its biggest strength.
Lessons were learned from the unpleasantness of a fourth-place Foothill League finish.
"Everybody is on the same page now," says Labat, no longer looked at as an outside by the group. "We're just taking care of business together.
"For me, as a senior and being injured last year and playing JV the year before, I realize what a blessing it is to be out here. I have (six) more games with this team. I'm going to do whatever I can to be a good teammate and enjoy every moment of it."
So far, so good.
Saugus is 17-3 with its only three losses coming against Buena (12-7), Ventura (19-1) and Huntington Beach (16-5), each in close games.
Heading into Tuesday's showdown against Hart, the Centurions are the Foothill League's only undefeated team, sitting pretty at first place.
It's largely the same group of girls who spent more practice time bickering with each other last season than preparing. But they're armed with a new attitude.
Olsson says they've shown it since the start of the summer.
"Every girl, every parent, every coach has bought into the same thing this year," Olsson says. "Getting credit does not matter. Points don't matter. Minutes don't matter. All they are focused on is winning league.
"Our practices this year feel completely different."
The key is understand the piece each brings to the puzzle.
With each of the five starters measuring between 5-foot-6 and 5-foot-8, they are all built similarly. But they each understand the importance of filling in a unique role for the greater good of the team and are no longer resentful toward other teammates whose same strengths are stronger.
"I've never had a team that has understood its role and accepted its roles as well as these girls have," Olsson says. "They'll do whatever it takes."
Five-foot-eight Gabrielle Conn is the center and primary rebounder, averaging more than 11 boards per contest. The 5-foot-7 Wilson, a shooting guard until her sophomore year, is also counted on for glass work.
They compliment each other well despite lacking ideal size.
"When I'm down by the basket boxing out my side of the lane for a rebound I have complete confidence that if it's not going to my side, Breann is going to get it," Conn says. "Between us, we'll figure it out."
Junior point guard Nicole Hicks handles the ball handling while Labat and Danielle Mofsowitz are her wings, taking care of the outside shooting.
Labat and Conn are the vocal leaders. Each of the five, though, plays a large role.
"I think any one of us is capable of stepping up," Mofsowitz says.
The proof is in the statistics.
Conn, the Centurions' biggest individual star over the past three years - earning All-Foothill League and All-Santa Clarita Valley honors last year as a sophomore - leads the squad in scoring at 11.4 points per game.
But even she shares.
In the Centurions' two games last week, the junior scored two points in each. In one - a 62-37 win over Golden Valley Tuesday, she had seven rebounds, seven steals and six assists. In the other, a 48-31 victory over Canyon on Friday, she pulled down a Centurion-high 14 rebounds.
"It doesn't matter who gets the glory," Conn says. "We share. Any one of us can score a lot of points in any one game. Winning the game is what matters."
Labat is right behind Conn with 11.2 points per game.
Hicks (9.5 points per game), Mofsowitz (8) and Wilson (7.4) are all right there as well.
"I truly feel completely comfortable, with the game on the line, with any of the five taking the game-winning shot," Olsson says. "All five of them."
The difference this year?
Unlike last season, all five of them feel that same way, too.
abarlam@the-signal.com


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